COLUMBIA — Blaine Gabbert couldn’t wait.
The phone calls, letters and campus visits that had defined the lifestyle of the Gary Pinkel era’s most highly coveted recruit faded into history before sunrise.
At last, he was a blue-chip prospect no more. Gabbert, future MU quarterback and heir apparent to Chase Daniel, was officially coming to Columbia.
“It’s a big relief,” Gabbert said. “I signed at 7:01.”
Gabbert, the nation’s top pro-style quarterback, as rated by rivals.com, highlighted MU’s 23-man recruiting class that was made official on NCAA Signing Day, including 12 players from Texas, nine from Missouri and one each from Iowa and Michigan. Rivals.com, a popular recruiting ratings service, ranked MU’s class No. 26 ahead of Big 12 Conference foes Oklahoma State (No. 27), Kansas State (No. 28), Nebraska (No. 30), Kansas (No. 40), Texas Tech (No. 42), Baylor (No. 51) and Iowa State (No. 63).
Many consider the class to be the best in Pinkel’s seven-year MU career, made possible by momentum gained from a 12-2 record and Cotton Bowl championship to cap this past season, the Tigers’ best since 1960.
“I feel good about our class,” Pinkel said. “We continue to recruit speed and athleticism. ... that’s why we have better athletes than we used to have. I think this class is significant in that way.”
Landing Gabbert was a particularly sweet coup for Pinkel’s staff considering the Ballwin Parkway West star committed to Big 12 North division rival Nebraska in spring 2007 but switched to MU on Nov. 10 amid uncertainty surrounding the future of former Huskers coach Bill Callahan. Callahan was fired Nov. 24 after finishing the year 5-7.
“Missouri is definitely gaining momentum,” Gabbert said. “It comes with time, though. The winning helps out-of-state kids, but a lot of in-state kids realize that going to your homestate school is a big deal. The proximity with home is nice, as well as the offense and coaching staff and players.
“A lot of in-state kids now look at Missouri. That’s now a school high on their list.”
In the past, MU has had difficulty keeping talent within its borders, a notable example being former St. Louis Rams defensive end and Webb City native Grant Wistrom, who played a key role in Nebraska’s three national championships from 1994-97.
Some of the state’s high school coaches credit improved relations as the reason for recent breakthroughs.
“Coach Pinkel has established relationships here in St. Louis, and it certainly has made a huge difference,” De Smet Coach Pat Mahony said. “More than anything it’s just the fact that they show they actually care about the athletes. Especially with (MU assistant Cornell) Ford. Because he recruits our area, he’s able to build relationships; he keeps in touch; he’s been very accessible. That has made a huge difference.”
Players have noticed. De Smet receiver and MU signee Wes Kemp, whom rivals.com ranked No. 6 overall in Missouri, said success on the field has made the Tigers a more visible option.
“There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle,” Kemp said of his decision. “One of them was definitely getting quarterback security in Blaine Gabbert. Also, the success of the team last year. In past years, Mizzou has been kind of up and down. (Last year) just opened my eyes to what’s going on there.”
Out-of-state coaches have begun to take notice. Missouri still trails traditional Big 12 powers such as Oklahoma (rivals.com No. 5) and Texas (No. 14) for the nation’s best talent, but coaches said Missouri’s appeal is growing.
“It’s relatively new around here,” said Pflugerville (Texas) High School Coach Jeff Rogers, who coached running back and MU signee Zaviar Gooden. “Most of our kids in the past stayed here in Texas. But people are starting to branch out and go farther.”
Harlan (Iowa) High School Coach Curt Bladt, who coached lineman and MU signee Dan Hoch, said, “I think Missouri has really stepped up its program. They showed this year they are capable of stepping up to that point where they could be contenders for a national title in the near future. With players like that coming in, I think (Hoch) wanted to be a part of that.”
For now, it’s only untapped potential. But for Gabbert and other MU signees, (NCAA) Signing Day represented the beginning of a new era.
“Our main goal is to win,” Gabbert said. “That’s what we’re focused on right now. We don’t have many individual goals right now except to win.”